Parashat Vayechi: Together, the Tribes of Israel
In parashat Vayechi, at the end of Sefer Bereishit, the children of Israel are a large family. However, in next week’s parasha, Shemot, Pharaoh calls them “am bnei Yisrael” – the nation of the children of Israel (Shemot 1:9). At what point does Yaakov’s family become a “nation”?
The process seems to extend from the time they move to Egypt (in parashat Vayigash) until the end of parashat Vayechi. However, if we were to try to define the process more precisely, we might point to two particular elements that turn Yaakov’s family into “the nation of the children of Israel.”
Yosef spends many years away from home, and all this time Yaakov believes his son to be dead. After they are reunited, near the end of his life, Yaakov grants Yosef the status of a firstborn. The law in this regard, set forth in parashat Ki Tetze (Devarim 21:17), states explicitly that the firstborn receives a double portion of his father’s estate in relation to all his brothers.
Yosef receives the portion of two tribes – Efraim and Menashe – as a result of Yaakov’s explicit decision in this regard. At the same time, attention should be paid to the fact that Efraim and Menashe are not shown preferential treatment in relation to the other tribes, but rather are counted as their equals: “Efraim and Menashe will be for me like Reuven and Shimon” (Bereishit 48:5).
This selection of Yosef as the “firstborn” also finds expression in Yaakov’s blessing to Yosef, further on in the parasha. This blessing is longer than those given to the other tribes, and comprises many elements. Chazal attempt to close the gap between Yosef’s blessings and his brothers’, but Yosef’s blessing nevertheless appears to enjoy a place of honor.
A third expression of the choice of Yosef is reflected in the commentary of the Akedat Yitzchak on a verse in parashat Vayeshev: “And Yisrael loved Yosef more than all his children” (Bereishit 37:3). The Ba’al ha-Akeda concludes – on the basis of this verse – not that Yaakov loved Yosef alone, but rather that he loved Yosef most of all his children but.
This, then, is the first decisive element in the formation of a nation: identifying the leader, choosing him and blessing him.
The second element that turns Yaakov’s children into a nation is the blessings that he gives them on his deathbed. Each blessing bestows a special role and destiny on the tribe for which it is intended. Zevulun’s role is not the same as that of Yissakhar, and Yissakhar’s destiny is not the same as that of Gad. The blessing, and the destiny that accompanies it, is suited to the character of each tribe and its own special qualities.
Beyond the role and destiny of each individual tribe, the blessing also contains a significant message concerning the totality of the tribes. Through his blessing, Yaakov defines for each tribe its future inheritance. Each tribe receives an inheritance which is suited, inter alia, to its national role. Thus, Yaakov makes it clear to his sons and all his descendants that they are in exile. Their stay in Egypt will be temporary; their goal and aspiration must be to leave Egypt and return to the Land of Israel.
This aspiration is also expressed in Yaakov’s wish to be buried in the land. The elaborate attention that the text pays to the story of his burial shows that the burial of a figure of such status as Yaakov outside of Egypt was not a simple matter. The Egyptians themselves were well aware of the significance of his request and they were not at all pleased, but ultimately his wish was fulfilled.
The place where a person is buried says something about his identity. Yaakov refuses to be buried in Egypt and become part of its ground. He wants to be buried in, and become part of, the land of Israel. He thereby demonstrates that he is not an Egyptian, but rather a son of Eretz Yisrael.
Together, the tribes of Israel
The combination of a blessing for each tribe and a special inheritance in the land may create too sharp a division and have the effect of sending each tribe on its own way. Hence, after the blessings, we find a verse emphasizing unity:
“All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is that which their father spoke to them, and blessed them – each according to his blessing he blessed them.” (Bereishit 49:28)
“Each according to his blessing.” Indeed, we know that the tribes remained in their designated inheritances over many generations. Nevertheless, they were not separate entities with individual, separate aims. Together they comprised the tribes of Israel. Each tribe had something different to offer, and this resulted in mutual inspiration and growth.
The tribes stand together in serving God. But how is this unity achieved?
The answer is quite simple. The moment that it is God Who is at the center, there is a common goal shared by everyone. This makes it possible for the tribes to unite and to help each other in achieving their common goal.
But when the goal is not completely pure and devoid of self-interest, then disputes will immediately arise. If each party has its own best interests in mind, then each becomes an adversary of the others. In such a situation there will be no unity. Indeed, history provides illustrations of this lesson. In situations where considerations that were not completely pure and objective crept into hearts and influenced decisions, we have been witness to separation after separation, conflict after conflict.
In order to stand together, in order to be of mutual assistance and inspiration, it is necessary to unite around a common goal. A goal that is clear and well-defined: the service of God.